What Is Small Business Saturday? How AmEx’s Post-Recession Initiative Found Its Place in the Thanksgiving Retail Rush

November 23, 2018, 7:00 PM UTC

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday, major U.S. retailers have succeeded in driving consumption around the holidays by offering irresistible deals and discounts. But since 2010, there’s been another contender in the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush: small businesses.

In the aftermath of the recession, American Express launched Small Business Saturday on the Saturday after Thanksgiving as a way to encourage Americans to shop at local retailers. It didn’t take long to convince the federal government of the idea’s legs. One year later, the Senate passed a resolution supporting the holiday, and businesses across the country joined the movement.

Initially, the day offered incentives to American Express cardholders, giving them a $25 credit to their statement to use toward purchases at small shops. By 2013, that reward dropped to $10, and in 2015 the financial incentive was scrapped entirely. In 2016, the company offered cardholders double credit points instead.

AmEx told Fortune that there will not be a cardholder offer for Small Business Saturday this year. “The statement credit offer started off as a way to help incentivize consumers to shop at local businesses,” a spokeswoman said. “These efforts helped create an annual event and occasion that has taken root in neighborhoods across the U.S.”

As part of the day, American Express created the concept of Neighborhood Champions, which are “business associations, state and local chambers of commerce, small businesses, and other community organizers” who are responsible for rallying the community around the day. According to American Express data, the number of Neighborhood Champions has grown from 1,400 in 2013, to 7,200 across all 50 states in 2017.

Obama Visits Local Bookstore On Small Business Saturday
U.S. President Barack Obama, with daughters Sasha and Malia, plugged Small Business Saturday in 2014 with a visit to a local bookstore in Washington, D.C. (Pool Getty Images)
Pool Getty Images

Participating businesses are eligible to receive materials and resources free of charge from American Express to help drive business on the day and year round. AmEx also lets businesses opt into being included in shopping recommendations that are emailed to American Express cardholders. That perk encourages business to accept American Express credit cards since only outlets that do so are eligible for inclusion.

And efforts appear to have paid off. American Express estimates that American consumers have spent $85 billion at independent retailers and restaurants since Small Business Saturday was launched.

Small Business Saturday
‘Shop Small’ has become a tagline of Small Business Saturdy. (Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Whitney Hayward—Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The initiative has gone international. The company launched a similar effort in the U.K. in 2013. Also called Small Business Saturday, American Express cardholders who spend £10 or more on their card in a single transaction at a participating store will receive a credit of £5.

This story has been updated to include a statement from AmEx.

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